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Letter in the St Helena Independent, 28th March 2013

The following letter was printed in the St Helena Independent newspaper on Thursday 28th March 2013. (We actually sent it to both newspapers but only The Independent chose to print it - we can only guess why…)

Freedom of Information

Where are we? (And what do we do about it?)

There was some talk a few months ago about Freedom of information in St Helena. So where are we with it?

Before I answer that, a quick recap in what Freedom of Information is all about. Most people know that it means you can ask the government a reasonable question about its procedures or how it reached a decision and expect to get an answer. But FoI is more than that. It also means government is required to use open and fair procedures in the first place. And it must publish the way it takes its decisions and the information it uses to reach its conclusions. No more suspicion that the person appointed for the job was selected based on who they are family to rather than any objective merit. No more funding for government projects that have no demonstrable benefit to the general population. No more plans being published with no input from the people. The turnout on Saturday for the ‘Constitutional Poll’ was terrible. More people turned up for the Earth Day celebrations than bothered to vote. One of the reasons is that people feel disconnected from their government. FoI would re-engage the people of St Helena with government and the democratic process. It has to be a good thing.

So where are we? The short answer is nowhere. Government has solidly refused to consider it. The Attorney General says he has far too much to do to bother about a Freedom of Information Ordinance (even though he’s been offered a template so he could just change the place names). Councillors won’t raise it as an ExCo or LegCo topic. And the governor ignores the whole subject. So we have made absolutely no tangible progress towards a Freedom of Information Ordinance for St Helena.

Why does the government refuse to give us FoI? The answer to that is also simple. It’s afraid of it. Having to adopt fair and open procedures, and publicise how it takes decisions, would radically alter how government works in St Helena. Decisions are currently taken in secret with no accountability. We, the people of St Helena, are expected to just accept what we are told, and must do so without questioning why or whether any sensible alternatives were ever considered. Government fees going up “because it is necessary” without anyone taking the time to explain to us why. That was the way in the old colonial days, when the master decided and the people meekly followed, but it is not a model for the 21st century. Everywhere else in the world has adopted FoI (with the notable exceptions of places like China, Cuba and North Korea), but not here. The UK government supports FoI for St Helena. The United Nations supports FoI for St Helena. Only our own government stands in the way.

So what, I hear you ask, can we do about it? How can we force our government to give us FoI and act in an open and transparent way? And the answer is: we don’t know. The St Helena FoI campaign has tried to engage them in debate but they refuse to talk to us about it. We’re not in a position to organise a protest march (and are not convinced it would do much good anyway). So I ask you, the people of St Helena: how do we get our government to change? How do we get our government to give us what every other 21st century democracy already has?

Answers on a postcard…

The St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign

We await replies with interest…

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